LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- When you look at Lake Mead, one of the first things you notice is the massive bathtub ring. The 140-foot ring is a constant reminder of how high the water once was and makes you wonder if we’ll ever return to those conditions.
While lake levels are dependent on snowpack in the Rockies, new water restrictions going into place for 2020 are expected to help keep Southern Nevada distant from a water shortage.
It’s been 36 years since water flowed over the spillway at Lake Mead, with water levels at the top of the dam. It’s a sight Michael Bernardo, River Operations Manager for Lower Colorado River Bureau of Reclamation, said is a reminder of the past.
"Will we ever see those conditions again? We don’t know," Bernardo said. "The Colorado River system is highly variable. The hydrology changes year to year.”
Snowfall in the Rockies is the lifeblood for Lake Mead and the people who rely on it, but if the snowpack is low, more water is coming out than going in.
"Starting in the period of 2000-2005, we entered into the driest five-year period ever seen on record," Bernardo said. "[Lake] capacity dropped from 95-percent to below 50-percent.”
Currently, Lake Mead is at an elevation of 1083 feet or 39-percent full."
As the drought persisted through 2018, one of the driest years on record, the need for water remained the same. Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico all rely on water from Lake Mead and the Colorado River. But divvying up who gets what, and why they get it is a complicated issue.
"No one wants to touch that. It’s one of the thorniest issues in the west," Executive Director of Brookings Mountain West and Lincy Institute Dr. Robert Lang said.
"Remember, whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” Lang said.
For now, it’s settled. The Boulder Canyon Project act of 1928 legislated how much each state is allocated.
"The west was settled under the water rights doctrine of ‘first in time, first in line’," Bernardo said. "At the time when agriculture was the largest economic driver in the early and mid 1920s, California was already in production. California already had a population boom."
As a result, California was given most of the water with approximately 75-percent of it used for agriculture. While populations and growth have changed over the last 90 years, the allotments have remained the same.
THE WATER BREAKDOWN
- The Colorado River is separated into two basins: upper and lower
- Upper Basin: Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico
- Lower Basin: Nevada, California, Arizona
- Each basin gets 7.5 million acre-feet of water a year
- Mexico has a separate allotment of 1.5 million acre-feet per year
- In the lower basin, the states pull water from Lake Mead and the Colorado River
- California gets by far the most at 58.7-percent
- Arizona receives 37.3-percent
- Nevada receives by far the least at just 4-percent of the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted
DROUGHT CONTINGENCY PLAN
Under new guidelines, those numbers will become even smaller. First affecting Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, which will keep an extra 3 feet in Lake Mead.
If levels continue to drop another 38 feet, then California will be required to tap into their own supply.
"The drought contingency plan itself, through water savings contributions, will go into effect in 2020 for Nevada in the amount of 8000 acre-feet," Bernardo said. "For Arizona, in the amount of 192,000 acre-feet, and for Mexico in the amount of 41,000 acre feet."
"If we see the lake levels continue to decline, California will begin to create water savings contributions in the amount of 200,000 acre-feet at an elevation 1045 feet and further 350,000 acre-feet, if we ever fell below an elevation of 1025 feet," Bernardo said.
WHAT'S THE CUT OFF?
If Lake Mead ever reached an elevation of 895 feet, water would be cut off to everyone except Nevada.
To better put some of those numbers into perspective, "Essentially every 85,000 acre-feet left in Lake Mead translates to about 1 foot of elevation," Bernardo said.
While Nevada doesn’t get much, we’ve learned to live with as little as possible.
"We didn’t mean to be an efficient user. We’d love to party with it and pour it in our lawns, but we’ve made the decision to live within the means of the valley,” Lang said.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER WATER GOES DOWN THE DRAIN?
One way we conserve is by reclaiming 100-percent of water used indoors.
Las Vegas could turn on every shower and faucet in all 150,000 hotel rooms, and it would not increase the amount of water the community depletes from Lake Mead, as nearly all that water would be safely returned to the lake.
"If it goes down the drain, whether it’s your shower, your sink, your toilet, or any drain in this valley -- that water gets reclaimed, treated to clean water standards [and] we can safely return it back into Lake Mead," Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Bronson Mack said. " For every gallon we put back into Lake Mead, we take another gallon out and bring it into this valley as portable drinking water."
According to Mack, Southern Nevada has reduced our Colorado River water use by 25-percent, while our population has grown by 46-percent.
And for people who worry about the valley running out of water, Lang said, "We’d run out of physical space before we run out of water."
Seventy-five percent of all Colorado River water in the lower basin is used for agriculture and Nevada benefits with the food that ends up on our plates.
California may not have mandatory restrictions yet, but just this year alone, they’ve conserved 5 feet of water in Lake Mead.
Keeping more water in Lake Mead is the goal. The hope is with more snow, more water will flow. 2019 proved to be a "great runoff year," Bernardo said.
"If we see three to four years of consecutive snowpack like we saw in the Rockies this past year in 2019, Lake Mead will be in a much better situation," Bernardo said.
LAS VEGAS (FOX) -- Will Las Vegas ever run out of water? Where does it come from? How much do Las Vegas resorts use with their water shows?